creolization and decreolization: Portuguese and Patuá in Macau

Studying Papiamentu and learning about its history has made me think more about the influence of the Portuguese language throughout the world. Not only is Portuguese spoken in several countries across the globe, but the number of creole languages that it has spawned is remarkable. Given the expanse of the Portuguese trading empire, however, this is only natural. Portuguese traders and colonizers encountered many different languages and cultures in their global pursuits, resulting in a variety of Portuguese-based hybrid languages emerging in the Caribbean, West Africa, India, and East Asia.

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Ruins of St. Paul’s, Macau’s most famous landmark

When visiting Macau last year, the native creole of the former Portuguese colony caught my attention. The language is commonly called Patuá or Maquista Chapado and is often also referred to as Macanese Creole, or in Portuguese as Macaense. I learned of Patuá as a gravely endangered linguistic relic and cultural artifact spoken by less than 50 people in Macau and perhaps by an additional few hundred individuals in the Macanese diaspora. Indeed it was hard to find any traces of Patuá in modern day Macau, but standard Portuguese has certainly left its mark and continues to coexist alongside Cantonese among an active, though very small, lusophone community.

creolization: Papia Cristám di Macau

The Portuguese have had a presence in Macau since the early 16th century. Macau quickly became an important trading hub and linked commerce between other Portuguese trading posts in Goa (India),  Malacca (Malaysia), and Nagasaki (Japan). Given the constant migration in and out of Macau, it is only natural that a community of people with mixed heritage was born and that they would develop a language of their own, a creole language no doubt. As I’ve mentioned before, a creole language arises from contact between two or more different language communities, blending all the languages spoken by the population. It starts out as more of a rudimentary code of vocabulary items called a pidgin.  Once a generation of children grows up hearing this pidgin as their primary language, they organically develop a grammar and more complete vocabulary, essentially creating a fully functioning language known as a creole. In the case of Macau, this creole language was Patuá and its community the Macanese.

Portuguese trade routes (1580-1640) shown in green. Source: The Red Hat of Pat Ferrick at the English language Wikipedia

The Macanese people originate from the intermarriage of Portuguese sailors and traders with women from Goa, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Malacca, and Nagasaki, as well as some Chinese converts to Catholicism and women from local Tanka communities. The community took on many aspects of Portuguese culture and life, including Catholicism, government and legal professions, and a Portuguese education system, but the language they spoke at home better reflected their diverse origins. Macanese creole, like other Portuguese-based creoles, is essentially a grammatically simplified version of Portuguese with vocabulary and influences from Cantonese, Malay, Papia Kristang (Malaccan Portuguese-based creole), Konkani, Marathi, Sinhala, Japanese, Indo-Portuguese, and English. The following are some examples of lexical items in Patuá by language of origin.


The vast majority of lexical items in Patuá are derived directly from Portuguese, sometimes via other Portuguese-based creoles. Below are just a few.

vagar (from the Portuguese vagar – free time): slow, free time.

torâ-português (from the Portuguese verb torrar – to roast, to toast): someone who speaks (standard) Portuguese poorly.

papiâ (from the Portuguese verb papear – to chat): to speak.  This word is also used in the Papiamentu language and is the source of that language’s name.  Incidentally, Papiaçám is another name for the Macanese Creole.

Língu Cristám (from the Portuguese língua cristã – Christian language): Macanese Creole, Patuá. Using the verb mentioned above, papiâ Cristám, “to speak Christian”, can mean to speak either Portuguese or Macanese Creole.

nhônha, nhôm (from the Portuguese senhora senhor – madame & mister): girl & boy, respectively.


vun (from the Cantonese 碗, wun2 – bowl): bowl.

pai-mai (a calque of the Chinese phrase 爸爸媽媽 using the Portuguese words pai mãe):  parents.

chau-cháu (from the Cantonese 炒, caau2 – to fry): a stir-fry.

atâi, amui (from the Cantonese 阿弟 and 阿妹 – younger brother and younger sister, respectively): used to refer to a Chinese boy or girl, usually of lower social standing.

amochâi (from the Portuguese amor – love, with the diminutive Cantonese suffix 仔zai2 – son, child): sweetheart, darling.

tu-tum-piám (from the Cantonese 頭痛片, tau4tung3pin3 – headache pill): a useless person, idiot.

pacfanista (from the Cantonese 白粉, baak6fan2 – white powder, i.e. heroin or cocaine): a drug addict.  Note the use of the Portuguese suffix -ista. 

Malay (possibly via KristangMalaccan Portuguese Creole):

santám (from the Malay santan): coconut milk.

côpo-côpo (from the Malay kupu-kupu):  butterfly.

Other languages:

cháli (from the Marathi गल्ली, galli – way, lane, back street): small narrow street, lane.

auábe (from the Japanese 鮑/あわび, awabi): abalone.

bói (from the English boy): child waiter, busboy.

cacai (from the English cock-eyed): one-eyed or cross-eyed.

cacús (from the Dutch kakhuis – shit house): latrine, outhouse.

a small grammar of Macanese Creole

The grammar of Patua has characteristics typical of other creoles (particularly other Portuguese-based creoles), as well as grammatical elements from Cantonese and Malay. Patuá has no definite articles, no verb conjugation, and only one set of pronouns to indicate subject, object, and possession.

The pronouns are iou (I/me), vôs (you), and êle (he/him, she/her, it), nôs (we, us), vosôtro (you, pl.), ilôtro (they, them). To create the possessive pronouns, the suffix -sa/-sua is added to each pronoun.

Verbs have one basic form, which can be used alone as a present tense verb, an imperative, or an infinitive. Some common verbs, all derived from Portuguese, are sâm (from the 3rd person plural são), têm (to have, to be located), vêm (to come), vai (to go), querê (to want), sabe/sá (to know), pôde  (to be able)comê (to eat),  (to read), olâ (to see, look).  Verbs are negated with nôm.

Iou papiâ Cristám. = I speak Macanese Creole.

Ele sâm Macau-filo. = He is a native Macanese. (literally Macau-son)

Ilôtro nôm têm na casa. = They are not at home.

Iou nôm sá / Iou nôm sabe. = I don’t know.

Qui-cuza vôs querê comê? = What do you want to eat?

Verb tenses are usually conveyed by various particles.  The particle  (from the Portuguese está, to be [doing something]) is used to indicate present progressive. The past tense is created by using the particle já (Portuguese for already), and the future is indicated by lôgo (from logo, later).

Qui-cuza vôs tâ papiâ? = What are you saying?

Úndi vôs tâ vai? = Where are you going?

Já olâ? = Did you see? (i.e. Do you get it?)

Iou já comê hám-chói. = I ate hum choy (pickled vegetables).

Nôs lôgo vai iscôla. = We will go to school.

Pai-mai lôgo vêm sentâ. = My parents will come sit (i.e. visit).

Noun plurals are indicated by reduplication, as in Malay. The same process can also be used to add emphasis to an adjective.

Vôs têm quanto filo-filo? = How many children do you have?

Ilôtro já vêm cedo-cedo. = They came very early.

Finally, one pattern familiar to speakers of any variety of Chinese also made it’s way into Patuá. To ask a yes-no question the following pattern is used: verb + negation + verb.

Vôs querê-nôm-querê? = Do you want it?

Vôs sábe-nôm-sábe papiâ Patuá? = Do you know how to speak Patuá?

You can see that, as with other creoles, not only are the grammar and phonology simplified and influenced by other languages, but the lexicon is also altered to include words that reflect the diversity and history of the language community. It should also be noted that, like most creoles, Patuá has no standardized spelling.


Patuá quickly became the primary language of the small Macanese community. For centuries it has been the pride of its speakers. Poems and songs extol the sweetness of this Dóci Papiaçám (sweet language), yet another name for the language. Patuá was the language of the home and family, the language dearest to the Macanese people. The rise of Patuá, however, did not mean that Portuguese ceased to be spoken in Macau.

Standard Portuguese remained the language of government and education, and students were taught to speak this “proper” Portuguese at school instead of “broken” Portuguese, i.e. Patuá. As more people arrived from Portugal  to work in the government, courts, schools and trade, the importance of the Portuguese language only grew. A command of the language of Portugal remained essential for upward mobility. By the 20th century, Macanese Creole had come to be associated with the lower class and with women, who were generally neither educated nor employed. The pressure to conform to the linguistic standard of Portuguese began to overwhelm Macau’s beloved language. Emigration to Hong Kong and elsewhere then further reduced the number of Patuá speakers in Macau, nearly decimating the creole-speaking community. Leading up to and during this time some writers such as José dos Santos Ferreira began to write poems, short stories, and even novels in Patuá, committing the language to writing for the first time. But it was too late. The numbers of speakers had dropped too low, and transmission of the creole to the youth had essentially stopped.

This is a phenomenon called decreolization, whereby a creole language starts to converge with its parent language due to social and cultural pressures. The influence of the parent language becomes so strong that the creole begins to lose its unique features until it eventually gets absorbed into the more prestigious parent language. Today most Macanese in Macau might know a few Patuá expressions or words, but the language they speak is Portuguese (and/or Cantonese, for that matter).

Today Patuá is still spoken regularly by a only handful of mostly elderly people in Macau, but even the Patuá that has been preserved is said to have undergone a degree of decreolization, ceasing to be the same dóci língu that it once was.  Despite this, younger generations do have a strong appreciation for their community’s creole, even if they are unable to speak it. One of the ways in which the youth have been able to engage with the language is through the Macanese theatre. Blending traditions of popular Portuguese theatre and Chinese folk drama, Macanese theatre is performed in Patuá and satirizes traditional culture and contemporary social issues.

Doci Papiaçám di Macau is a drama group, started by Miguel de Senna Fernandes, that performs in Patuá (with surtitles in Portuguese, Chinese, and English), keeping the tradition of Macanese theatre alive in Macau. Some members are older Patuá speakers, but the bulk of the group is comprised of younger Macanese who presumably need to learn the language for their annual performances at the Macao Arts Festival every May. The group has also created a number of videos in Patuá that parody daily life in Macau. Fernandes recognises that Patuá has no hope of ever becoming the daily language of the Macanese community again. The task at hand is rather to showcase and preserve the memory of this language that was the voice of the Macanese people for hundreds of years. Even if Patuá is no longer spoken, Doci Papiaçám di Macau makes the culture of Patuá relevant to the younger generations of Macanese.

Miguel de Senna Fernandes and others talking about Macanese theatre (in Portuguese,  Patuá, and Cantonese):

Macau Sâm Assi (This is Macau), parody of the song Lisboa é Assim, performed by Dóci Papiaçám di Macau:


If Patuá is nearly extinct, then what is the fate of the Portuguese language in Macau? There has never been more than a small minority of Portuguese-speakers in the former colony, and today only about 3% of the population speaks Portuguese natively, though about 7% claim fluency. Many predicted that with the return of Macau to China in 1999, Portuguese would slowly become obsolete and cease to have any importance. The numbers of students studying Portuguese began to drop in the 90’s, but in the past decade the language has steadily been gaining popularity in Macau. Portuguese is doing better than ever, and interestingly enough, this growth is not coming from within the Macanese community.

China has realised that the unique cultural heritage of Macau can be used for economic gain and in 2003 designated Macau as the bridge to the lusophone world, particularly Brazil and Portuguese-speaking Africa. Macau is China’s ticket to these growing economies, and students from all over the country are going to Macau to study Portuguese and profit from these cultural ties. In fact, many graduates are finding that their ability to speak Portuguese is getting them head-hunted right out school, earning higher salaries than their counterparts who only studied English. Portuguese is the competitive edge, and recently there are almost as many students studying Portuguese in Macau as there are fluent speakers in the territory.

At the same time, high unemployment rates in Portugal are resulting in many Portuguese moving to Macau to find work. Portuguese-speaking doctors, professors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and other professionals are in demand and are relocating to the former colony to take jobs they can’t get at home. Brazilians, Angolans, and other lusophones are also taking advantage of these opportunities. All of this, of course, adds to the relevance of Portuguese to modern-day Macau.

Despite Macau’s renewed position in Lusophonia, the already “decreolized” Macanese community faces another very real cultural threat: that of being absorbed by the Chinese-speaking majority. Portuguese in Macau is greatly overshadowed by Cantonese and, increasingly, Mandarin and English. Most signs are bilingual (Portuguese and Chinese), and recorded announcements tend to include Portuguese, but you would be hard-pressed to hear a Portuguese conversation while walking down the street. It’s something that you have to seek out.

On my short visit, I didn’t have any time to waste seeking out lusophone enclaves, so I went straight to the Livraria Portuguesa, the Portuguese Bookstore. I found exactly one Portuguese speaker at the bookstore, from Portugal, not Macau, judging by his accent. The store itself was well stocked, and I ended up getting a book on cultural traditions in Macau and a wonderful dictionary of words and expressions in Patuá, the only book on the subject that is available, I was told. When it came time to pay, the Portuguese speaker had disappeared and I had to conduct the transaction in Cantonese. It seems that even in the Livraria Portuguesa, Portuguese is rare and fleeting.

All of this is not to say that Portuguese heritage isn’t visible. Walking around parts of the old city, you could easily mistake your surroundings for a neighbourhood of Lisbon. The colonial architecture is well preserved, and it is Macau’s most captivating characteristic. Catholicism is also alive and well and remains crucial to the identity of the Macanese. As I wandered the city looking at churches and searching for the best pastéis de nata, the saudade was palapable. Everywhere you look, there is evidence of a world that is trying its best not to fade away.

Outside of the narrow lanes and alleys of the Old Town, a new and more urban Macau is booming. With modern casinos bringing in droves of Mandarin-speaking mainland tourists and business, the pressures of Chinese on the already outnumbered  Portuguese-speaking community are greater than ever. If the unique culture of Macau has any future in the long run, it will be because of its relevance to the international lusophone community. The Macanese people exist because of Macau’s place in the international Portuguese trading empire, and their survival will be for the same reason.


Most of the examples of Patuá in the post were pieced together from the following two sources:

Maquista chapado: vocabulário e expressões do crioulo português de Macau (2001), by Miguel Senna Fernandes and Alan N. Baxter.

Como ta vai?  Miguel Senna Fernandes’ Patuá blog.

Other helpful resources:

Caderno do Oriente

Gráfová, Miluše. Português de Macau – Magisterská diplomová práce2013.

Macau Antigo

Néno, tâ vai contá

PCB Magazine